Outline Eureka!

I am a great outliner.

I’ve written marketing plans, communications plans, white papers, newsletter articles, and magazine articles. For almost all of them, I have used MS Word’s outline feature to organize my thoughts and the flow of the piece—usually before I write very many words.

My fiction, on the other hand, I outline only after writing it—if at all. (This is rather odd psychologically, since in most of the rest of my life I like to know where I’m going and what to expect when I get there.) And yet, I always think, darn, I should be outlining.

Outlining in the third dimension

So I was pleased to read an eye-opening post by Keith Cronin that appeared a few weeks ago at Writer Unboxed, which validated my habit of outlining after writing AND went on to give me more helpful insight. His validation:

“And – this may surprise you – you don’t need to do it [outline] before you write. In fact, I find outlining much more useful during the writing process and afterward, when editing and revising.”

The additional insight:

“…let me assure you that I am NOT talking about those arduously complex multi-level lists that you were forced to learn in school, with all those Roman numerals and tricky formatting rules. No, I’m talking about an extremely simple tool you can put together in a matter of minutes.”

He went on to describe how you can actually outline with—gasp!—nothing more high tech or complex than a pen and a piece of paper.

I realized what has been holding me back from outlining more has been the tyranny of the tool, specifically, MS Word.

Now, I know there are all sorts of writing programs out there. Unfortunately, the people who create these programs seem to think that only Mac users are writers (or perhaps that all writers use Macs). It appears that a majority of writing software is available only for the Mac, as evidenced by listings such as that appearing on Literature and Latte; only one on the list, WriteItNow, also offers a PC version.

Perhaps I should look into writing software. But the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of getting out of the screen and outlining in three dimensions, using a good old-fashioned piece of paper. I didn’t know it at the time, but Kourtney Heintz was speaking directly to me on March 13 when she described her revision process. Her accompanying picture says it all.


What are you trying to prove?

Much has been written on the differences between “pantsters” and “plotters,”* the former being those who write by the seat of their pants, the latter being those who plan everything out in advance. What I love about the idea of outlining ex posto facto is that it doesn’t feel as if it stands in the way of a pantster like myself who prefers scenes to arise organically from the subconscious rather than to be written in response to a plot hole or missing character detail.

The pantster's pants

For the more organic writers such as myself, it also helps to think of outlining as part of the editing process, rather than the creation process. I have always enjoyed editing other people’s work—not so much my own, to which I often feel too close and entwined to slash what needs to be slashed. But using the outline as a revision tool will help me to evaluate my own work more objectively.

Coincidentally, shortly after I stumbled upon the Writer Unboxed blog post, I attended the March CWC-SF/Peninsula meeting. The speaker was Nora Profit, founder of The Writing Loft as well as an award winning journalist, feature writer, columnist, and author.

Ms. Profit apologized in advance for condensing an entire day’s worth of advice, usually dispensed as part of her workshops, into less than an hour. Nonetheless, I walked away with several extremely useful editing tools. They don’t exactly fall in the category of outlining, but I put one of them into practice immediately as I worked on the first draft of the short story for submission to the San Mateo County Fair Literary Arts Competition. Ms. Profit suggested creating, for every piece you write, a focus statement in the form of filling in the blank in the following sentence: “I am writing this short story/novel/article/poem to prove that ______________________ .”

The statement then becomes a bellwether as you write. Not sure if a scene belongs? Check against the focus statement. Not sure if a character feels right? See if he or she fits in the context of the statement.

This is not nearly as easy as it looks. I’m still not sure I have the focus statement for the story exactly right, but it’s a starting point and already seems helpful in guiding the writing.

Based on these experiences, I’ve decided to do something different during my writing time for at least the next week. Although I’m only what feels like about a third of the way through the first draft of my novel in progress, I’m going to take time off from writing new material. Instead, I’m going to work on getting the focus statement right, per Nora Profit, and I’m going to outline what I have, per Keith Cronin.

And for the first time, I’m viewing these organizational steps not as impediments to getting the writing done, but as enhancements to the process. I’ll report back on the results in a few weeks.

Views from around the Web on pantsters vs. plotters

The Kansas Writer’s Association discusses pantsters and plotters in this commentary on the creative process.

The Crowe’s Nest blog post “Anatomy of a First Draft” is exactly that, with special notation of the respective troubles faced by pantsters and plotters.

Amanda of The Rubber Duck Brigade details her own process as a pantster.

8 thoughts on “Outline Eureka!

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  1. I always hated having to do outlines in school because they never worked for me when I came to write the paper. Points I had thought I could make just didn’t work out when I tried to pin them down by writing them. And now, for fiction, I can’t imagine doing an outline first, last, or in between. I have it in my head. Isn’t that enough? The story may not go exactly as I planned, but that’s part of the adventure.


  2. I am in an outlining phase right now for my WIP, but I don’t use any fancy programs to do it (I use Scrivener on my PC more just to organize my materials). I try to create a chronological flow with the highlights for each scene, scenes which I can rearrange later if need be. I do this with my Controlling Idea in mind (which I think is equivalent to your focus statement).

    Great post–I always enjoy hearing about the writing processes of others. Thanks for the great links as well.


  3. Audrey, I’m a huge fan of pen and paper. I map out characters and plots that way before I even attempt a draft. I’ve experimented with writing a 3-5 page synopsis before I write the draft and letting it evolve with the draft. I need to have an end point for the roadtrip. Then if I happen to take a few detours, I still know where I need to end up. 🙂

    I drafted my query and synopsis as I wrote the draft. I found it super helpful in focusing my mind. I really love the idea of a statement of purpose for each book too. Thanks so much for a fabulously informative post!


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